Friday 27 July 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - V: Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground & Nico

1967 may be considered as the "birth of Rock".
The album was rapidly becoming the prime method of delivery, with sales beginning to out-strip singles.
And there were one or two landmark albums in that year.
The Beatles 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' being the most obvious.  But 1967 was also the year of' The Who Sell Out' (The Who), 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (The Rolling Stones), 'Smiley Smile' (Beach Boys). 'Are You Experienced' (Jimi Hendrix Experience) and 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' (Pink Floyd).  A fair few "classics" in one calendar year, but honourable mentions also go to 'Disraeli Gears' (Cream), 'Forever Changes' (Love), 'Days Of Future Passed' (Moody Blues'), 'Odessey and Oracle' (The Zombies) ...

I could go on, but I think it's fair to say that there were a good few (soon to be) influential albums in that year.
And then there's this one - equally as influential (in some circles, probably even more so), but snuck out quietly to little reception or commercial success.  (Conservative estimates suggest the album sold no more than 50,000 in it's first 2 years of life, and it would be a further 10 years before it cracked the 100,000 mark).

Lou Reed and John Cale had first come together in 1964 sharing a love of experimental music and art.  They were joined by college friend Sterling Morrison, and re-christened their band Velvet Underground.  Drummer Moe Tucker joined soon after.
Lou Reed's song "Venus In Furs" was translated into a short art film, and through this they came to the attention of Andy Warhol.
Warhol invited the band to become part of his touring show/event Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and continued to encourage the band to practice, experiment and record.
Warhol also suggested the band use German singer Nico on some of their tracks.
Under Andy Warhol's guidance (and his expansion to the vocal line-up), the band recorded their debut album a fortnight in late spring 1966 (they returned to the studio towards the end of 1966 to add the finishing touches and record one more track.
Andy Warhol is listed as Producer, but it is suggested that the extent of his "production" was standing in the studio nodding sagely and offering encouragement to the band (he also bank-rolled some of, so a tag of "Executive Producer" probably isn't too far away).

With Warhol involved, and with the artiness of the cover (a single yellow banana on a white background (a peelable banana on early copies)) you would probably expect an avant-garde, pseudo-intellectual, almost impenetrable (only to those "in the know") collection.
Well, track 1 certainly pushes those misconceptions away very quickly.

Opener "Sunday Morning" (and the last track added) is a gentle pop song with psychedelic-folk feeling, not to far removed from the Mamas & Papas (or similar).  And this is where the "oddity" of this album comes in - "Sunday Morning" has been used as the introduction for Michael Ball's Radio 2 show for a good few years now.  A perfectly acceptable, perfectly polite, perfect pop song (OK, with a little touch of paranoia going on in the lyrics).
And then the dirt & darkness begin - "Waiting For My Man" is a two chord, drum thumping garage rocker telling the tale of Lou Reed waiting in an unwelcoming part of town for his drug dealer to arrive.
Nico's first full vocal is next on "Femme Fatale" - cut from a similar cloth as "Sunday Morning" but from a darker place, with a strange mixture of Latin and Germanic tones.
The droning "Venus In Furs" follows, wrongfooting (wrong-earing?) the listener once again.  A trand employed right the way through.
You just never know where you're going to be taken next: There's Garage Rock ("Run, Run, Run", "There She Goes Again", drugs and darkness ("Heroin" - is it a celebration or a warning?), a ballad from Nico ("I'll Be Your Mirror"), Poetry over a squeaking Viola ("Black Angels Death Song") and a frankly disorientating mess which is strangely listenable (closing track "European Son").

There is no "theme" or "trend" to the album as such, it is a culmination of a group of musicians pushing their boundaries in the name of "art" (whatever that means).
What they did do, bu accident rather than design, was to create an album that grew in stature over time (it gets better each time you listen to it, and become familiar with it's discordant-ness), and one that in retrospect you can identify influence on future musical movements (Punk, Goth, Post-Punk, Alternative Rock, Art Rock - all can draw some connecting line back to 'Velvet Underground & Nico', and it's not too much of a jump to suggest David Bowie's "Queen Bitch" owes a debt to this album too.)

There were to be more Velvet Underground albums, and all had their moments.  Just not as many moments, compiled together as well as they managed with this first offering, and never as perfect again.

Sunday Morning


All Tomorrows Parties

1 comment:

  1. It's undeniably a great record... though I prefer their later stuff which doesn't try so hard.